Counter-terrorism measures affect children across all continents from all nationalities and creeds. On 4 June 2018 an 18-year-old female from the United Kingdom was convicted of terrorism offences including attempting to travel to Syria for terrorism. This case is not entirely unique. In 2017 almost one third of those arrested for terrorist offences in the European Union were 25 years old or younger. This provides evidence of a link between children and terrorism. Arguably, this should demonstrate that children therefore need to be considered in relation to counter-terrorism measures.
European government responses to terrorism can be interpreted as overzealous, often compromising the civil liberties of their citizens. Despite having an impact on children, most European government counter-terrorism policies lack a specific child right’s approach, creating difficulties in their compatibility with international children’s rights standards. Of particular pertinence are children’s right to protection against violence, freedom from discrimination and the rights to education, privacy and participation.
Consequently, children’s rights and counter-terrorism measures seem to come into considerable controversy in the fields of the juvenile justice system, education and the issue of returnees.
However, before considering these practices, it seems pertinent to note that there is no single method for children to become involved in terrorism. Two key factors that can impact a child’s decision making are the internet and their family environment; two facets that are extremely difficult to regulate, especially within a security-based approach to counter terrorism.
Monitoring and surveillance are common elements of counter-terrorism legislation. In relation to children, these elements take place at school. The role of education in counter-terrorism is twofold. Firstly, educators are expected - in some European States they are legally obliged - to observe any signals of pre-radicalisation and yet, simultaneously, fulfil the agenda of modern education in a more broader sense, providing their students with the skills and attitudes that can help them build their resilience to such propaganda.
Many children’s rights are at stake in this environment: children’s right to privacy, freedom from discrimination and freedom of expression.
Children are more vulnerable to the indoctrination of terrorist ideologies. However, this does not mean that terrorism should not be discussed in schools since children themselves have expressed the wish to have these issues discussed in the classroom. Arguably, since this is an issue affecting society, it should be discussed and facilitated in schools as a matter of learning. However, where the purpose of such a discussion is a security issue, the matter becomes more complicated and requires justification.
Juvenile Justice System
Generally, legal frameworks like the rights contained in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) also protect children’s rights in the scenario that they are perpetrators. However, considering the elements that radicalisation and recruitment play in terrorist offences, children can also often be considered as victims. That is to say that children, as is the legal norm with child soldiers, should not be prosecuted for mere association with (terrorist) organisations.
The recruitment of children should be criminalised by States and the “use of children for terrorism-related offences [should act] as an aggravating circumstance in punishment” (Good Practice 3). Referring to the principle of non-punishment of child victims, it is possible to draw a parallel to trafficking where this principle is well-established (Art. 26). However, most of the dialogue surrounding the status of children accused of terrorist offences focuses on them living in areas of armed conflict, where international humanitarian law standards are also applicable. At first glance this may not seem so relevant in the context of Europe. However, many Europeans who travelled to conflict zones in the Middle East are now returning, and authorities are left with the decision whether to prosecute or not. This leads to considering child returnees.
Although there is no single definition for the term ‘returnee’, it is a Western term and refers to individuals who have returned to Europe after travelling to the Middle East to join the conflict. This has triggered discussion among policy makers on how to handle those who have already returned or those wishing to return. This is also a highly politically sensitive issue. Generally speaking, European governments see these children as a security risk. (See, K. Fangen & Å. Kolås ).
Within the Council of Europe there is an incentive in the form of an additional protocol to encourage Member States to criminalise those who return from committing terrorist activities overseas. This does not specifically refer to children, who can be considered equal to child soldiers and therefore victims. By not returning these children, who are considered victims by the CRC, European States could be found to be in violation of Article 2 CRC by discriminating against these children due to the actions of the parents.
If children are left to grow up in these conflict zones, their right to life, survival and development (Art. 6 CRC) could be infringed. Furthermore, Europol reported that children growing up in these environments are being trained to become “the next generation of foreign terrorist fighters”. On top of this, a theory exists that if these children are not assisted they could become resentful and want revenge on European countries. Thus, by not having an effective model to help bring returnees home, one could argue that Member States are inadvertently enabling the radicalisation of children.
After a careful analysis, best practices can be established in order for national governments to ensure that their counter-terrorism measures do not only comply with children’s rights, but positively reinforce the rights of the child. Children’s rights standards, particularly the general principles of the CRC, should be at the forefront of the agenda of counter-terrorism policy makers as children make up a big part of the targeted population of these policies.
- Every effort should be made by States to create a curriculum that achieves the aims of education as set out in Article 29 CRC. Such a curriculum should not infringe on a child’s right to freedom from discrimination, right to privacy and freedom of expression.
- All teachers should receive high quality training on violent extremism; not only from the perspective of potentially identifying radicalisation, but also enabling them to discuss it effectively in the classroom environment with children.
- The status of children as victims should be carefully considered and any decision to prosecute should be decided with the child’s best interest as a primary consideration. The application of the juvenile justice system must be appropriate and compliant with children’s rights standards.
- Children accused of terrorism-related offences should not be treated in a more extreme manner in the juvenile justice system. Their vulnerability should be recognised at all times.
- Any surveillance or data collection by States carried out in the name of counter-terrorism should not infringe on a child’s right to privacy.
- European States should work together to ensure the safe return of child returnees. A collaborative approach reduces the risk posed to individuals carrying out such an operation.
This blog has been adapted from the thesis submitted in the Advanced LL.M. programme in International Children’s Rights at Leiden Law School, written by Heidi Burrows and supervised by Dr. Stephanie Rap.